MGNREGA: Rural Employment Support Weakens Even As Distress Rises 

Work under MGNREGA is showing signs of sputtering amidst rising rural distress and a continuing trickle of reverse migration. 

Passengers wait at a temperature checkpoint after arriving at Pune railway station during lockdown restrictions imposed by the state government in Pune, Maharashtra, India, on Thursday, May 6, 2021.  Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Passengers wait at a temperature checkpoint after arriving at Pune railway station during lockdown restrictions imposed by the state government in Pune, Maharashtra, India, on Thursday, May 6, 2021. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Work under the government’s flagship rural employment guarantee scheme may face disruption as Covid-19 infections start to spread into rural areas. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a key social security net in times of distress, has seen persistently high demand since last year as the labour market remains weak.

Data for May, as of the 16th of the month, shows that employment was provided to 54.67 lakh households, compared to the demand for work by 1.94 crore households. While mid-month data may not be fully representative of the final tally, researchers say it is reflective of the on-ground realities.

The demand-supply gap for work under the scheme has been wide for a few months now. In April, when data is available for the entire month, employment was provided to 2.1 crore households versus the demand for work by 2.7 crore households.

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Work Disruption, Delayed Payments

Researchers and NGO workers in some states speak of some disruptions to the supply of work in recent weeks and a longer-than-usual delay in payments.

In Bihar, the “administrative pressure” to supply work has eased compared to the first wave, leading to a weak supply of work, said Ashish Ranjan Jha, secretary of Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, a trade union of unorganised sector workers. There is also a backlog in the release of funds, which is worse than it usually, Jha said. The delay in payments is discouraging workers, he said.

In Rajasthan, the local lockdown led to a halt in work under the scheme as well, said Nikhil Dey, social activist and founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. However, a week into the lockdown, the state government permitted work to restart after concerns were raised over subsistence for a large number of people, he said. Dey said that in many other states, too, the spread of the pandemic has disrupted supply.

Siraj Dutta, who works with the Right To Food campaign in Jharkhand, said work under the scheme has seen disruptions as frontline functionaries have been allocated work for vaccination and other pandemic related purposes. When asked whether special guidelines have been prescribed to ensure the virus doesn’t spread at work sites, Dutta said they’re are being asked to wear masks and exercise caution. He, too, spoke of worse than usual delays in payment to workers. Workers haven’t received wages since mid-April, he said.

The demand for work is significant and is never fully reflected in the government records. A small proportion of workers usually get work. This time, pending wages, lack of functionaries and the high seasonal demand have caused further challenges.
Siraj Dutta, Worker With RIght To Food Campaign In Jharkhand

Data available so far for May suggests that the widest demand-supply gap exists in Rajasthan, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

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Rising Distress

Work under MGNREGA is once again crucial and the only real form of social security available to many informal sector workers. Unlike during the first wave, the government has not announced any cash transfers, although food entitlements have been extended.

Informal workers, including migrant workers and street vendors, are once again facing the brunt of lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the virus, said a report by the Stranded Workers Action Network.

The group, which connects relief to workers stranded across India, found that 81% of the workers who had contacted them last year have once again found themselves without work due to locally declared lockdowns. The survey was released on May 5. Most distress calls SWAN received were from workers in states like Delhi, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh.

Khaana Chahiye, a Mumbai based non-profit organisation, also said they have been receiving a steadily rising number of distress calls as the lockdown in the city continues.

This time, migrants anticipated the lockdowns and several sent their families back, while they themselves pooled resources to stay in the city and sustain themselves, said Ruben Mascarenhas, co-founder and director at Khaana Chahiye Foundation. Still, though not as evident as the reverse migration last time, “there is a steady stream of people moving lock, stock and barrel to villages,” Mascarenhas said.

This reverse migration will ensure that demand for rural jobs will remain high or even rise further.

Need For A Plan

Rajendran Narayan, assistant professor at Azim Premji University, who is also co-founder of the SWAN Network, said the government should start working on alternatives amid high distress.

Narayan suggested providing an unemployment allowance to all active job cardholders if work takes a hit. While the Act mandates that at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year be provided to every rural household, an additional 50 days of wage employment can be provided at times of natural calamities. Dey agreed. This provision has been used by states such as Uttarakhand and Gujarat in the past and should be enforced nationally now, he said.

For FY22, the government has set aside an MGNREGA budget of Rs. 73,000 crore, lower than the Rs 1.15 lakh crore revised estimated spending in FY21.